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Colloquy Podcast: How Good do Black Students Have to Be?

“You have to be twice as good to go half as far.” It's a maxim that Black and Brown Americans know well, particularly in their experience of the educational system. In recent decades, college preparatory school programs have sprouted up to give middle school students of color a better chance to compete and gain admission to elite private institutions like Exeter, Andover, Choate, and many others. From there, the thinking goes Black and Brown kids can make it to colleges like Harvard and then to successful and lucrative careers, addressing systemic inequalities in wealth and income.

Garry Mitchell wants to trouble the notion of this path as an unqualified good for students of color. An educator and GSAS PhD student who studies college prep school programs, Mitchell says that these initiatives often don't dispel the racist paradigm of twice as good, they institutionalize it. The cost to participants can be a loss of community and a sense of themselves as they exist outside of majority white spaces. The cost to society, he says, is the perpetuation of systemic inequality.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and correctness.

Let's talk about the program that you study. You call it Uplift Academy [to preserve confidentiality]. That's not its real name but talk about it a little bit. What is it? Who does it serve? How does it operate?

Yeah, so Uplift Academy is a program that works with a small cohort of students over the course of a year to prepare them academically, socially, culturally, to not only gain access to elite independent schools throughout the New England area but also to be leaders and thrive while they're on campus. And so through an intensive program, one of the things that they say is that students come in several years behind in terms of academics. And they work really hard over the course of a year to get caught up, so that they can be competitive with their peers once they get to their independent schools.

And so they're reading books that are on the syllabi for many courses, freshman courses, at these independent schools. They're making it through pre-algebra and sometimes algebra in some instances to make sure that they're prepared in those ways. But then there's also a level of social and cultural preparation. So the school and the program work to take students to Martha's Vineyard and the Cape. They go to the MFA. They go skiing. They play squash. There's a rowing coach that comes in to teach the students about rowing, so that when they go to school and they hear the term "coxswain," they know what that is. And so those are some of the staples and hallmarks of Uplift Academy.

Is the program successful? I mean, on its own terms. Does it get students into elite schools?

On its own terms, yes. It's very successful at getting students into elite schools. I think one of the things that the program is quite proud of is its ability to find schools across the board or at a number of different tiers to place students in. They spend a lot of time working to find the right fit for students. Not every student will thrive at Andover. And they're aware of that. Some students need a much smaller school setting. And so they work to find schools that specialize in that. Some students go to day schools, but the vast majority go to boarding schools. And so I think that they are successful on their own terms in getting students to those schools.

So what about the next step? Do students from these programs go on to elite colleges? And what happens there?

Yeah, so students go on to a number of different colleges. What's been interesting is talking to many of the donors to the program. Most of them say that in their mind, the program is a success if students go to elite high schools and then go to colleges that will support them, that they're able to make their way through. And that will put them in touch with networks where they can have a stable and successful career.

So far, this sounds pretty good.


I have to confess, when I was first learning about your research, I wondered how college prep school programs fit into this. Ostensibly, they're just trying to prepare students of color, so that they can compete, can get access to these institutions. But how does this bit of being twice as good play out?

I think it plays out on two levels. One, it plays out on the individual level. Individual students have to be twice as good as their counterparts in the schools that they're going to, the elite prep schools throughout the New England area. Many of them are boarding schools.

And so when they get there, they have to be prepared to work twice as hard academically. They have to stay in the instructor's face twice as much. They have to make sure that during their study hall hours, they're completely focused and that there's no time when they're goofing off or forgetting about the task at hand.

It also manifests behaviorally. These students have often shared in their interviews in understanding that they can't make some of the silly missteps that are part and parcel of teenage years because for them, the consequences might be much more grave than their counterparts who are at their institutions not on financial aid, oftentimes with family members that have been influential to the institutions. They've had older siblings go there. And in many ways, their legacy speaks for itself. And so for the students in my study, many of them share that twice as good looks like understanding that you quite literally have to be twice as good behaviorally.

You mention that a prominent way that this plays out in elite high schools for students of color is behavioral. Do you have a story about what that looks like?

Yeah, a student shared that as he got to his school and he's figuring out the lay of the land and he's learning new students, he's recognizing who the leaders on campus are. He's recognizing who are the students who might be in the dean's office a little bit more than others. One of the things that he noticed is that the students of color were in the dean's office more than some of the white students at the school.

And not only that, but he noticed that for similar infractions, a white student might get a slap on the wrist. And a Black student would get a far more serious consequence. In one instance, he said that a Black student on financial aid was actually expelled from the school for a disciplinary infraction. And he said that infractions of that kind did not result in the same outcome for other students at the school.

And so one of the things that he said he does is he makes sure that despite the fact that he's on financial aid, despite the fact that he is in the racial minority at his school, he takes up leadership positions. He creates really strong relationships with his teachers and instructors and the other adults on campus because he wants to make sure that his position is never questioned. And so one of the things that he said is that's how he continually earns his spot. It's not enough to just work hard to get a seat in the institution. But in his mind, he had to continually earn that spot at that school.

Of course, no one can really be twice as good all the time, particularly if the reward is going only half as far. What's the psychic cost of that paradigm for young Black people?

So one thing I'll say is that it is immensely stressful for a lot of them. For some of them, they don't find it immensely stressful. And for many of them, they find it immensely stressful, but they figure it's a cost worth paying.

And then I would just say some of the ways that it plays out for them in terms of what that stress looks like, I think especially their first few years at their independent school freshman and sophomore years, several of them have shared that they struggle with mental health issues, so anxiety, depression, a feeling of isolation and disconnection or disconnectedness from campus and from other people on campus.

Many of the alumni that I've talked to said that they wouldn't trade their journey, but that it comes with these unintended consequences and this unintended or unforeseen burden that the school couldn't prepare them for or hadn't anticipated and that they, themselves, were utterly unprepared for. And this burden is a psychological, emotional, you might even say spiritual burden of pursuing a path of upward mobility and recognizing that while on that path, there are parts of yourself that you have to shed. There are new parts of yourself that you have to maybe even prematurely sprout as a way of making it through. And that can all be very taxing. I think one of the unintended consequences of Uplift Academy is that when I've spoken with many people and many alumni and current students, they've talked about buying into this idea of elitism that they hadn't bought into before.

And so on the one hand, they've been exposed to, Oh, my gosh. This school has a campus. It's not a high school. It's a campus. This school has a hockey rink that is as big as a college's hockey rink. This school sends students to Spain over spring breaks. And I can study abroad for a semester in Italy and those sorts of things. But at the same time, they've shared a level of unhappiness when they begin to think about where they fall in the hierarchy. And so things like going off to college can be very stressful because thinking about, oh, wow, I'm at Andover now, but I'm not going to be at Harvard. And so thinking about where they fall in that hierarchy, a hierarchy that they were largely unaware of before, can be a little bit frustrating for them.

What are some other unintended consequences of these programs?

Another thing that some of my participants have shared is this idea that was instilled in them while at Uplift Academy that they are better than some of their peers from their communities, from their middle schools, and that, for lack of better words, they are the chosen ones and that many of their peers will remain stagnant, or even trail off a plateau, or not make it through high school while instead, they will soar. And many of them have said that they've had to work through in recent years and undo this idea that not only do they have to work twice as hard or aim to be twice as good. But quite literally, they are twice as good.

That mindset of meritocracy can work as a protective factor when you're in settings with predominantly white and affluent peers. But then also, it can work as a distancing factor from your community and from the people that you grew up with, the people that you love when you go back home and you see them wearing certain things, talking a certain way, maintaining certain interests. You begin to feel that you are quite literally twice as good as them. And that is an unintended consequence in my view of these programs preparing students to be in elite spaces.

How does the financial model of these preparatory programs actually limit their transformational impact?

People who contribute to the program and are volunteering with students, they're tutoring students, they're driving students to their independent school interviews, they want the best for the students. But their idea of the best is quite different at times from the family's and student's idea of the best. And so on one instance, of donor shared with me that he gets frustrated when students go on to these independent schools, and they're out of their comfort zones, and they're stretched, and they grow only to go to colleges and to major-- and he said non-rigorous majors such as sociology and African and African-American studies instead of economics, math, political science.

And he said it's also frustrating to him that in terms of their friend groups, they only hang out with Black students or other students of color. And so one of the things that can happen is when funders and donors are having such an extensive hand in the operation of the organization, some of their mindsets can trickle down into the ways that the organization is framed and run and the way that students experience it. And not only that, but when volunteers and donors are around students so much, some of their mindsets can actually be taken on either directly or indirectly by students.

And so one student was told by a donor, just make sure when you go off to school, you don't hang out with all the Black kids. And that was one of the things that they took to heart and really worked hard to do once they got to their independent school. And so when you have an organization that is dependent on wealthy white benefactors for its funding and you also have students that are from a totally different demographic and these two groups have different understandings of what success might mean and what it might take to be successful, that can sometimes come at a clash.

One of the things that I've noticed, not as much now post-2020 on the racial reckoning, but certainly before, is this idea that we have to play into certain scripts of Black inferiority, of a culture of poverty in order to gain funds. If you want people to donate to a cause, you have to make the cause really, really enticing. And so at times, Uplift Academy has strategically used the experiences and stories of some of their students in order to appeal to donors that look at how you can change this student's life. Here's how you can get them out of this horrible situation.

And I think implicitly, one of the things that happens is that it reinforces this idea of white saviorisim and also reinforces the idea that students are from these damaged and broken communities and families. And ultimately, that trickles throughout the entire organization. And while they're working really hard to change this, there's been this culture of distancing parents from the process and strategically removing them and replacing them with volunteers or other adults in the students' lives, other white wealthy adults who come into the student's lives in order to support their journey.

And I think one of the harms of that is one, you play into these tropes of Black inferiority; two, you reinforce this idea of white saviorism in that the way to improve society is by fixing these broken people from broken communities. But then also, because students experience that at such a young age, they can begin to believe those things about themselves and their communities as well and in turn play into this strategic distancing of themselves from their families.

And sometimes, in some cases, students have said that their mentors, volunteers from these programs, have been more of parents than their actual parents, which I'm not sure if they would have said before they came to Uplift. And so I think that is one of the unintended consequences of relying so heavily on white benevolence and benefactors in order to run an organization like Uplift.

What are some ways, even within the current model, you think we can mitigate the underside of these programs and the impact that they have on students of color?

When I think about some of the alternative methods that we might have, one of the things that comes to mind in this unjust, unfair structure that we have is if we're going to send students into these elite spaces, we have to be utterly and painfully clear with them of the costs that they will have to pay and not just a one-time cost. It will be an ongoing cost that they'll have to pay. And I think we have to be upfront with students before they even enter these programs. And they still won't understand. But at least, that will be an attempt at an understanding. And they'll be able to make an attempt at that understanding.

One of the things that Uplift Academy has done is brought in alumni to teach a course to students about how to prepare socially for independent schools and how to prepare culturally for some of these microaggressions and macroaggressions that they're going to experience when they go into independent schools. However, even that has an underside. If you, as an alumnus, survive that institution by putting your head down, not saying things when someone called you a racial slur, or when you experienced racism, and classism in different ways, then what are you going to do?

Much like the other forms of capital that we talk about in the literature, you're going to pass on that capital and those strategies for surviving those institutions. And ultimately, you're reinforcing this idea that in order to make it through, you have to be twice as good, keep your head down, and can't make a fuss or a stir. And ultimately, students are trained to maintain the status quo and existing social structures instead of being encouraged and equipped with the tools to alter and transform them.

So, what's your final verdict on programs like Uplift Academy? Do they end up making our society more fair, more equal, and more open to diversity?

Yeah, I'm going to give you, I think, the classic scholar cop-out answer. It's both. And I think that in many ways, students have shared with me, and alumni I've shared with me that they've experienced opportunities that they never otherwise would have experienced. They've made bonds with people in their Uplift cohort that they never would have made otherwise.

One alumna that I talked with said that one of her classmates from Uplift is literally the godmother of her child. And so they wouldn't have made these connections. They wouldn't have experienced those things. They wouldn't have traveled to Spain. They wouldn't have seen some of the world. They wouldn't have learned that new instrument likely if they hadn't had these opportunities.

And at the same time, there are certain costs that they wouldn't have had to pay either. Some might argue there would have been other costs. And some might argue there would have been other benefits. And I think most of the students and alumni in my study recognize that.

In terms of society as a whole, I think that these programs are not making society more just. They're playing into the existing stratification of society to make life better for a small subset of individuals from communities of color. I think one of the other things that would make these programs more just is if they intentionally instilled—along with social, cultural, and human capital in students—if they really work to instill a sense of obligation and commitment to their communities of origin, so that when students are able to go to an independent school and college and beyond, that their commitment to return to their communities is one that is an abiding one and that they find ways to not just give back to their families because many of them are very committed to doing that, but figuring out how to be changemakers in an unjust system so that this playing into the stratification of society would yield some kind of collective benefit in the long run even if we're unable to realize it in the short run.

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