December 4th, 2012
02:57 PM ET

Access to elite education, but feelings of exclusion for some students of color

Editor's Note: In today’s United States, is being black determined by the color of your skin ... by your family ... by what society says ... or something else? Soledad O’Brien reports “Who Is Black in America?” on CNN at 8 p.m. ET/PT this Sunday, December 9.

By Kiran Khalid - CNN

(CNN) -  High school is tough for any teenager, but for Albert Anderson, it was the subtle looks and unspoken words that made him realize he was different.

“High school is when people start with the judging,” he said.

Anderson grew up in the projects of New York City’s lower East Side, and commuted an hour each way to attend a  prep school in the affluent upper west side of Manhattan. No one said anything offensive, but he missed out on experiences, and was never felt fully accepted.

“It’s possibly the best high school education you can get,” he said. “I’m grateful I could attend, but the social part goes with that.”

He spoke about his experiences in “Allowed to Attend,” a revealing documentary that tells the stories of  five of Trinity's students of color who navigated the socioeconomic and racial planes at the elite private school.

It’s a conversation being had at several prestigious prep schools, some for the first time. But Trinity took the rare step to address the sometimes loaded topic of inclusion by turning the spotlight on itself.

Nationally, 26.6% of the total students enrolled in independent schools in the 2011-2012 school were students of color, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. About 35%  of students of color in private schools received financial aid - 41% of all aid recipients were students of color.

On paper, the efforts to diversify elite preparatory education appears to be making headway. But in practice, the journey has been filled with challenges, and a number of recent films explore the topic. "American Promise"  looks at the experience of of two black male students and their parents over 12 years , and will air on PBS in 2013. Andre Robert Lee’s film, "The Prep School Negro" explores his and and others students of color personal experiences at elite prep schools.

"My whole thing is to get kids to verbalize that internal dialogue and face that psychological homelessness,” Lee said.

Lee often speaks at schools, and his experience was similar to those voiced in "Allowed to Attend." Trinity’s communications director Kevin Ramsey shot, produced and directed the film after a screening and discussion of  “The Prep School Negro.

“I made a commitment to each that I would listen to their stories without any agenda except one of honesty and respect,” said Ramsey. “The documentary grew out of that.”

The whole senior class was invited, and five students volunteered to share their story in the 74-minute film. It tells the stories of  students of African-American and Asian descent, showing the lengths they go through to get to the doors of their elite school, sharing their thoughts and experiences along the way. The film will not be released publicly.

“It really wasn’t made for the community at large,” said John Allman, Trinity's Head of School. “We primarily saw it as a teaching tool, as a tool for dialogue within our community about how we can become an increasingly inclusive community.”

Inclusive is not how the five featured students would describe the privileged world where they were granted access.

Albert Anderson says he was often aware of the great socio-economic divide between him and his classmates. He attended as part of the Prep for Prep program that selects promising African-American and Latino seventh-graders and places them in elite independent schools.

"The five of us did the film, because we cared enough about Trinity so that we wanted the next generation of Trinitarians to have a much more accepting environment," Anderson said.

Ayinde Alleyne was another student who came to Trinity via the Oliver Scholars Program.

“It’s definitely a little jarring at first because there are some very blatant differences between you and the majority of your white peers,” said Alleyne.

David Addams, Executive Director of the Oliver Scholars Program, says he attended a screening of the Trinity film and was blown away.  He counsels students and helps prepare them for the culture shock that often accompanies moving from a poor school to an elite one.  Many of those students experience “imposter syndrome," or the belief some students have that they are just in a privileged academic setting because they’re filling a minority quota.

"It’s very difficult and sad. That’s why we do a lot of work to help them understand that they deserve this, that they’ve earned it and it’s where they belong,” Addams said. “I hope the school takes full advantage of the film because it will take them to a whole new level of dialogue.”

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Filed under: Black in America • Education • How we live
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. anne

    Does Adultery towards a black female come in same category as this article ms. KHALID?

    February 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sandra

    Who says Barack Obama is not black? If you put Obama's picture next to mine he would look 3 shades darker.. and I don't have a white mother.

    December 10, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  3. techwiz


    True words: Isn't the overwhelming proclivity and value system of the earth completely based on the fear of white genetic annihilation, it is the scientific factor which has caused the earth to be in turmoil and the majority don't actually know or say this. The lack of genetic diversity ensures that eventually there will be no white (as it was in the beginning) and honestly, I too don't think that's a positive eventuality but it does not grant the right to force all other peoples of the earth tertiary classism.

    What granted the priviledge imbued in the words of the White posters here, higher intelligence, Divine ordination, why does EVERY person on the planet that earns a dollar find its rule directly or indirectly to white people, why are they the top. Because they stole millions of acres of Fertile Farmland from the natives, because they stole 300 years of free labor from africans, THIS has afforded this position, if not we would have seen such flourishing throughout history but there is no demonstration of this until the last 500 years.

    Then their vile words ring out to maintain status quo, well, when you restrict basic human rights for just a few, what happens when that few includes you?

    December 7, 2012 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jojo1111

    Cliques inflict grief on people of all races. Snobby jerks are the kind of people I wouldn't want to be friends with, anyway. We should all be judged by the content of our character, our kindness, sense of humor and positive values and interests.

    December 7, 2012 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
  5. techwhiz

    Perhaps you can all speak better to our experiences in america, but mine mirror my fathers and his fathers and his fathers and his fathers at what point do our experiences actually become valid?

    December 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. techwhiz

    Isnt it convenient White americans always say "Lets stop talking race" dut the income disparity in 2012 is TWENTY TO ONE...our mortality rate, our high school dropout rate, our incarceration rate, our literacy rate all are reflective of RACE...but as long as white people feel comfortable and dont experience the slightest bit of uncomfortyability, EVERYONE else on earth should quietly accept their lot. While our children and seniors can neither stand their ground nor Run from trouble, nor in the case of the man thrown onto the tracks Defend ourselves.

    So Black americans should quietly accept the condition and go into the night, My Red Brothers went this way and you are most content saying WE are americans and omitting them for your conversations and reality...I submit you are not qualified to tell people what to get over..Never Forget Nam, Never Forget the Holocaust, Never forget your veterans, NEVER forget 9-11, but forget Race and slavery, is that right??

    December 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • mad?

      No one alive in America today had anything to do with slavery so it's a moot point to bring it up. That's like me (white guy) saying remember Rome and how it effected us

      December 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Eben

        I don't think that was completely the point...

        December 7, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ronaldo

    Once again CNN and Soledad try to spark racial uprisings. Wake up Amerca and don't believe the liberal media and the liberal Long Island spoiled brat Soledad. I'm expecting a Soledad story on the need for reparations any day now!

    December 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Saraswati

    There's an old 1948 move, The Outside (originally the Guinea Pig) that covers this experience from a time when exclusion was much harsher, even among people of the same race.

    December 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bob S

    How About Stopping The Use Of Race, Color etc And Start Using Americans Because That Is What We Are "AMERICANS". God Bless America, While I Realize There Is Discrimination, We Are All Legal Citizens And Should Be Treated The Same And This Isn't A Pipe Dream It's Reality!!!! :0)

    December 6, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kara

      Race and color can't be ignored or pushed aside. They do create differences in how people are treating. I'm black and female and an American, but the first two adjectives affect me on a daily basis–sometimes negatively, sometimes positively. However, they are present, and they do change what my experiences as American have been. I'm not sure why people want to deny the existence of race/color.

      December 9, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. M.Adams

    Well, well, well, I remember the days when my daughter attended the most elite girls school in the country, where millionaires getting $300k bonus checks from work were acting deferential to the billionaires. Great education, needless to say; the social isolation didn't start to kick in until the 4-5th grade. What made the experience typical for "minorities" is that you simply don't have an infrastructure of self-sufficiency that can give you a sense of your collective worth. White people are good at making the exceptional individual feel special, but they are not interested in "giving" anybody wealth or status. And they shouldn't. Black folks are going to have to step up and realize that you can't simply "talk" about equality, you have to "be equal" and no amount of "helping hand" programs are going to make Black folks as a group equal. That is something Black folks are going to have to do for themselves.

    December 6, 2012 at 6:49 am | Report abuse |