Graphic by Anna Arnsberger
There is something inherently connective about being one of the few people of color in a sea of white faces.
It’s not a new phenomenon, but I really began to understand it during the race unit in my AP Human Geography class. A breakdown of ethnicities in the class was produced, and I found that I was the only Black student (according to Wilson’s records). But that fact had escaped me, because the class is 67 percent students of color, and I had developed relationships with people in the class that were of color. Even still, it was uncomfortable to see the striking number that marked my presence as the only Black student in the classroom.
Senior William Bell has had similar experiences throughout his AP career, starting in sophomore year. “In my AP World History class that I took my 10th grade year, there were only three Black kids in the class and we stuck together when it came to classwork and projects,” he said. Bell then commented on his junior year, talking about how, “In AP Physics, there were only three Black kids, including myself, and because of the seating chart it was hard to work together. But all three of us got closer through the class because when it came to finishing work outside of class, these [were] the two kids in my class I would text to help me because I knew them better.” Junior Kiarra Bellamy added to his point, stating that her AP classes on average have “maybe five minorities in [them]… I feel like we’re connected because we go through the same thing.”
Much of the time, this connection is pretty strong. Senior Lexi Brown stated that “there’s like a telepathic understanding, we’re like, ‘okay, we’re both in here.’ [And this feeling] is definitely in history classes. You notice everyone becomes silent when the Black kid has something to say.” AP English Language teacher Jennifer McLaughlin explained that “…even in classes that aren’t necessarily AP, when you are in a group where you’re outnumbered, you’re seeking something familiar so that you feel safe and comfortable. Black and brown kids are seeking someone who looks familiar so they can feel safe.”
But it’s difficult to feel safe when your classmates don’t look like you, interact with you, or even seem to respect the work that you do. Principal Kimberly Martin spoke on her experience with the now-disbanded program Minorities in AP (MAP) where students regularly gave input on how they felt in AP classes. She said that “an anecdotal situation a student explained to me was that in an AP Calc class… that whenever he was working in a small group if he would provide an answer, kids would check with someone else… so he would say, when you’re with another person of color, there’s more confidence because those microaggressions don’t exist.” Senior Skye Irving added to Martin’s point, stating how “in group discussions, they will talk over us and never include us in conversation [and] act like we aren’t sitting there or like we have nothing to contribute to the conversation.”
Irving noted that the bond was made stronger because of how other kids self-segregated. “We always sat together and worked together, and it wasn’t ‘cause we necessarily wanted to, it’s ‘cause we felt like other than [Burgoyne] no one was gonna help us.” This narrative aligned with other students’ narratives Martin had learned from MAP. “When they were choosing groups for group projects, that they’d always sort of end up together… they would end up together anyway because of how other people self-selected,” Martin said. “And it would sort of just work out that way, whether you were doing it consciously or not, it just turned out that there were more opportunities in class for the few students of color in class to end up sitting together, working together or relying on each other.”
So it is obvious that we’re facing a cultural problem along with the base problem of diversity, a problem that AP teachers and administration are trying to solve. Teachers like McLaughlin “want students to feel safe everywhere, regardless of their race, their gender, their ethnicity, their preferences, we want people to feel safe in a school building so that they’ll take classes that are best suited for them.” And teachers like AP U.S. History instructor Michele Bollinger stated that, “As a white teacher… there’s a lot of things I try to do, whether it be who’s hanging on my wall, to the texts that we might use, to using things like the 1619 project, to make sure that we are making clear that US history is Black history.”
Martin added to this, saying that, “We started Honors For All, three, four years ago, trying to improve experiences for ninth and tenth-graders and make sure students have access to the most challenging curriculum in their school, and that they are ready and prepared for AP classes in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade.” Martin also spoke about other methods of diversifying AP, such as the fact that staff “…kind of made it an unspoken rule that all teachers would have access to teaching AP classes because it used to be quite a tradition of white teachers teaching AP classes, so now we’ve diversified who is teaching those classes as well, so that when students of color get into advanced coursework, it’s not just a sea of white faces, white students, and teachers.”
Being Black or brown in these classes can be difficult, first because they are AP courses, and second because being in the minority is exhausting. It feels isolating from the rest of the community, and the treatment by classmates and teachers is a huge factor in the experience kids of color have. “The hardest part is navigating how to [create] a whole new culture in a school building… it requires what I call revolutionary acts, from everyone involved,” McLaughlin said.