Sunday, October 21, 2012

Assorted injustices

-I'm not alone in protesting YPIS. I skimmed this on the train, but will need to investigate further.


-Rachel Hills continues to be fabulous, explains the Alexa Chung physique controversy to us all. This was my favorite part:
One of the misconceptions that skinny privilege relies on is that life is better when you’re thinner. It sustains itself on the belief that even the most incremental differences in size and shape will have a profound effect on how we are received; whether we will be rejected and passed over, or embraced and revered.
I couldn't agree with that more!

My only quibble is that while Chung is right that women should be judged more for brains and less for looks than is currently the case, this is a woman who is, among other things, a model. I don't think beautiful women are under any moral obligation to artificially experience life as the plain-looking do, as if this were even possible. But - barring human-trafficking-type situations - one makes a choice to be paid for one's looks. Models are certainly not directing societal beauty standards, but each woman who might have that job has decided that she will be the person with said features to do that job. Sure, if it hadn't been you, it would have been some other woman who looked just like you, but if it's you, it's you. It's wrong to judge a woman for being startlingly thin, but something else entirely to judge her for selling thin. This holds regardless of how she came to have that physique, regardless of how much effort or lack thereof went into it for her personally.


-NYC private schools, even more of a mess, diversity-wise, than the public magnets. Jenny Anderson's piece on what it's like to be a minority student at a Manhattan prep school is spot-on, or at least appears to be to me, as one of the not-as-rich white kids who attended one of those pre-high-school.

Anderson effectively conflates scholarship-kid with minority, which makes sense both from the stats she provides and in the context of these schools: there are special programs (such as Prep for Prep) that specifically recruit underprivileged, brilliant students of color. The way the admissions process works - how I remember it, and how the article portrays it - these schools have only rich and poor kids, with the handful of middle-class (lower- and upper-) effectively lumped in as "poor." The aloofness in question manifests itself as this overall sense that "we" are "normal" and anyone who has to god forbid attend a public school or take the subway might as well be featured on "Save the Children." This was mildly irritating for those of us who were merely upper-middle class, but often disastrous - as this article well shows - for kids whose families were actual-poor, as opposed to merely private-school poor. I allude to my own example not to summon tiny violins, but to explain what a weird atmosphere these schools create.

Anyway, it was obvious to all who were the scholarship students (even though some of the "rich" white kids received financial aid) because of the Prep for Prep influx in certain grades (7th and 9th). A new, smarter, darker-skinned kid in the class who didn't live in Manhattan-below-96th was readily identifiable. All of this culminated memorably one year when, apparently due to self-selection, one 10th-grade yearbook photo had only white kids, the other only students of color. This was NYC, in the 1990s. I was pleased to see Anderson pointing out that these schools are somewhat optimistic, deceptive, you choose, with their depiction of diversity in their promotional materials.

That American schools tend to remain de facto segregated is nothing specific to NYC's fanciest schools. Several factors make this case different (PG, take note), most obviously the near-absence of white people who aren't wealthy, and of students of color who aren't super-serious. The latter arguably promotes a positive stereotype - there's no broader stereotype in the U.S. that black and Latino kids, at least, are particularly studious, so if one emerges from this program, so it goes. But the former is more problematic. Yes, there's such a thing as "white privilege," but it doesn't generally come with, say, a Manhattan townhouse with its own elevator. The social gulf between (to simplify) blacks and whites is typically not what it is at a school where things are so extreme. Because private schools hand-pick their classes to contain only rich white kids and ridiculously impressive, bootstraps-story students of color, they manage to avoid having any kids who are, well, ordinary. That's just about the worst. But the absence of any kind of averageness makes for a screwy environment. As for what the stakes are of this arrangement, I suppose the problem with it is that if the goal is creating a diverse, integrated elite, it doesn't appear to be succeeding.

But what first jumped out at me was this:
There is no doubt that New York City’s most prestigious private schools have made great strides in diversifying their student bodies. In classrooms where, years ago, there might have been one or two brown faces, today close to one-third of the students are of a minority. During the 2011-12 school year, 29.8 percent of children at the city’s private schools were minority students, including African-American, Hispanic and Asian children [....]
Interesting, I think, that when we're discussing the city's private schools, Asians are considered a "minority" and perhaps even "brown," whereas the article about Stuyvesant from the very same NYT series mentions that the place is 72.5% Asian as a way of saying what a rich-and-fancy place it is. Which... seems kind of fair, considering this anecdote:
[Minority students] describe a racism that materializes not in insults, but more often in polite indifference, silence and segregation. Albert, an Asian-American boy in “Allowed to Attend,” says: “You can do a lot of psychological damage to people by ignoring them for an extended period of time. For, like, four years.”
It's striking, then, that Prep for Prep considers Asians "of color" - striking insofar as it tells us just how 1950s that world remains.

What's missing from this entire conversation is something like context. Not to keep harping on this, but harp I must: we're talking about how exclusive schools like Stuyvesant are because there exists a prep course that some take to get in, and it costs $750. A year - one year - at a private school is $40,000, which isn't counting the myriad official and unofficial activities fees. I get that in this country, we allow private educational institutions a great deal of leeway, homeschooling and all that, but I'm not convinced that as social-justice issues go, the public magnet schools' unrepresentativeness comes close to that of private schools' arrangement.

I'm still not convinced either private schools or public magnets are beneficial to society or to the individual students who attend, that the benefits aren't basically about which family you came from, which factors got you to that school in the first place. But what Stuyvesant manages and few other city schools do is socioeconomic diversity. Not "diversity" as in a handful of poorer kids to make up for the super-rich majority, and not "diversity" as a euphemism for everyone's really poor. "Diversity" as in you get the whole range. This is helpful in terms of having a sense of where you yourself stand, privilege-wise, and also in terms of not feeling like it's you against the world. It's far from perfect, but it's something.

12 comments:

PG said...

Several factors make this case different (PG, take note), most obviously the near-absence of white people who aren't wealthy, and of students of color who aren't super-serious.

You mentioned that you were neither an actually poor kid nor a white rich kid, just UMC. Roughly what proportion of your class would you estimate was made up of people like you? Because I can imagine that if my parents had had the same income but lived in NYC, they might have sent us to $40k/year schools if they were convinced they were really so superior. But they wouldn't have been sending us on the fancy senior class trip (not just because of the cost but also because hello teenagers-gallivanting-in-the-islands is where Missing White Girl stories come from and they didn't need their daughters to be the token Missing Brown Girl). Indeed, in general I could see UMC Asian (and perhaps other?) families making financial sacrifices sufficient to pay tuition at these schools but not having money enough (nor really caring enough about their kids' "self-esteem" and "peer group" and other American myths) to pay for all the extras that would allow the kid to blend in with the rich students. Also, there are rich people of color in NYC -- where will little Ivy Blue someday attend school?

The majority presence and apparent obliviousness of the rich white kids does make the social segregation at Dalton et al different from the phenomenon at public universities. But to the extent they are similar, that would seem to indicate something to do with race and not class. So I wish the article had broken out a little more explicitly what is peculiar to the prep schools and what seems to crop up at institutions where the average white student and average black/ Latino/ Asian student are not so far apart in income.

the article about Stuyvesant from the very same NYT series mentions that the place is 72.5% Asian as a way of saying what a rich-and-fancy place it is.

I don't recall the Stuyvesant article saying the school was a rich-and-fancy place.

Sometimes, Mr. Blumm said, blacks and Latinos who do well enough on the entrance exam to get into Stuyvesant are lured away by prestigious private high schools, which offer them full scholarships and none of the issues that even elite public schools have to contend with, like tight budgets and overcrowding. ... ABOUT three-quarters of Stuyvesant’s students are immigrants or children of immigrants. ... Like many of her white and Asian classmates who make lengthy treks from the outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens to Stuyvesant’s campus near the site of ground zero, Rudi begins each day before dawn.

The white and Asian Stuyvesant students came across more as oblivious about race (much as the private school kids were about money).

Phoebe said...

PG,

"Roughly what proportion of your class would you estimate was made up of people like you?"

Not a whole lot, I suppose, and we in no way set the social atmosphere of the place. It's easy to imagine, in the abstract, that parents might take advantage of the educational opportunities but have their kids skip the socialite training. But in practice, certainly once kids are old enough to make their own friends and not just be friends with their parents' friends' kids, it's not so simple. That is the social life of the school. I'm sure my parents weren't pro $50 school dances, pro middle-schoolers having lunch at places I at 29 can't regularly afford. But this was what everyday socializing meant. What ultimately happened was, families like mine had to either take the place for what it was and pay for extras to the best of their ability, or have their kids transfer out.

Re: wealthy black families, there are indeed some, but in my class, I remember clearly that there were no black kids in kindergarten, and that later on, one black girl from a wealthy family transferred in. As for why that's the case, I'd say it might be that these schools are thought of as all-white and country-club-ish. It could also be that the school I attended was more this way, and that rich black kids go more to other NYC private schools.

"So I wish the article had broken out a little more explicitly what is peculiar to the prep schools and what seems to crop up at institutions where the average white student and average black/ Latino/ Asian student are not so far apart in income."

Right. That was what I tried to do with this post. Something changes when the white kids are that much wealthier than the minority kids.

Correct re: the Stuyvesant article - that itself seems not have said much about rich/fancy, just the response to it from people with no personal knowledge of the place. But much of what's been written about the school lately does - it's that word "privilege." People outside that world understandably don't realize that Stuyvesant isn't NYC's ultimate elite, that there is also this network of private day schools (not to mention boarding schools) where the real power congregates. I do think it's immensely significant that in the conversation about private schools and there alone, "Asian" signifies an educationally-underrepresented, underprivileged minority.

Moebius Stripper said...

Phoebe,

Your linking that first article in the context of YPIS makes me think that YPIS is really just identity politics run amok. It's difficult to impossible, for instance, for self-described social justice activists to prove that they have had a measurable effect in bringing about actual social justice, but being social justice activists is such a huge part of their identity that they need to prove their commitment somehow. Since impact is such an elusive metric, folks instead measure their commitment in terms of their fervour for the cause. Which, online, naturally takes the form of YPIS.

Of course, some online chatter can actually be classified as bona fide activism - see, for instance, feminists highlighting misogyny online, an act which often results in them becoming targets of harassment and even threats. I'm less convinced, though, that dogpiling a committed but imperfect feminist for, say, using the generic "he", has any real effect other than alienating would-be allies who don't want to deal with such crap and consequently stop posting to message boards.

While YPIS is something I have only ever encountered online, here on the urban west coast, virtually everyone I've talked to in any detail about the subject identifies as an environmentalist, which, as far as I can tell, is an identity derived entirely from the extent to which one feels and expresses outrage in the face of various environmental sins. One's own actions vis-a-vis the environment are irrelevant. For instance, an able-bodied person in my city - which has a moderate climate and is well-served by public transit - can still be an environmentalist if they drive 95% of the time, as long as they 1) feel bad about it and 2) wag their finger at people who drive 98% of the time. (There was a hilarious example of this on a radio show the other day: an environmentalist who earnestly explained that her commitment to minimalism led her to think *long and hard* before buying a second home.) Self-awareness is great and all, but so is the recognition that there exists a world beyond one's navel. And triply so when any form of activism is concerned.

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

"I'm less convinced, though, that dogpiling a committed but imperfect feminist for, say, using the generic "he", has any real effect other than alienating would-be allies who don't want to deal with such crap and consequently stop posting to message boards."

That's how it goes with YPIS - the point is to humiliate fellow-travelers.

PG said...

That is the social life of the school. I'm sure my parents weren't pro $50 school dances, pro middle-schoolers having lunch at places I at 29 can't regularly afford. But this was what everyday socializing meant. What ultimately happened was, families like mine had to either take the place for what it was and pay for extras to the best of their ability, or have their kids transfer out.

I'm not sure I understand. First, do you mean lunches on school days? Kids were let out to get their lunches rather than eating from-home or cafeteria lunches? Craziness. Second, even if you mean only the outside-school-hours socializing, there can be non-economic reasons this gets limited. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Asian kids (maybe other immigrants from socially conservative backgrounds) were limited in socializing not just by whether they could afford to join a particular outing but also by some of its being deemed inappropriate even if it were free. (Again, sending 17-year-olds to the Bahamas?!)

So the choices technically aren't pay or transfer. They're pay, transfer or be a social nonentity. The third option seems to be a mainstay of American pop culture anyway; surely there are families opting for it.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I promise it's not as confusing as all that. What you're picturing is Amy Chua orthodoxy. Which also exists. But what you need to imagine is Amy Chua lite. Parents whose impulse might be that whichever 'extras' are silly, but who come around, at least in part, when confronted with the realities of the situation. As in, when their kids actually make junior-socialite friends, when they (the parents) realize that they'd miss valuable networking opportunities if they decide a dance with important people's kids is too frivolous. I mean, that's part of what these schools offer.

Except under extreme circumstances, the parents of older kids don't have (or seek!) such thorough control of their kids' social lives. A parent, then, can veto something that costs too much, but if a 17-year-old (or 12-year-old!) wants to do something free and legal that the parents don't like, the kid will find a way. But, to repeat, the parents don't necessarily want to veto as much as they might have imagined they would. Their concept of what's normal changes according to what their kids experience. This may be different for a family with one kid in public school and one in private. But if all are in private, that *is* normal, and only the obviously extreme will get vetoed.

Then, once you factor in that there wasn't any significant group of middle/upper-middle class kids with real or pseudo-immigrant parents, you have to figure that there isn't any meaningful third way, where one can opt out of socialite-dom but still have good friends. (There were, I suppose, less cool kids from just-as-rich families, but that too meant weekends in the Hamptons, etc.) Kids do tend to want friends, and it takes a really determined Tiger Mom type to keep that from happening.

Oh, and re: lunches, I don't know how it went in high school, but I'm referring to middle school weekends. During the week we ate in a cafeteria. But there is, on Facebook, a picture of me out at a very chic place as a very awkward-looking 7th or 8th grader. Happily, it's not tagged.

PG said...

As in, when their kids actually make junior-socialite friends, when they (the parents) realize that they'd miss valuable networking opportunities if they decide a dance with important people's kids is too frivolous. I mean, that's part of what these schools offer.
Except under extreme circumstances, the parents of older kids don't have (or seek!) such thorough control of their kids' social lives. A parent, then, can veto something that costs too much, but if a 17-year-old (or 12-year-old!) wants to do something free and legal that the parents don't like, the kid will find a way.


I wonder if this is partly an urban-with-public-transport thing. In a car-dependent culture, parents can exercise pretty significant control over the kid's movements unless the kid really like to walk long distances and is good at dodging traffic. It's easier once you're old enough that your friends have cars and can transport you even if your parents don't allow you a car. But prior to that, most of your friends' parents also expect you to have your parents' consent and will not want to take you places after the first time your parents yell at them.

The networking as a middle-schooler thing also isn't something I'd encountered. Even my friends in Houston who did attend expensive private schools (Episcopal, St. John's) didn't seem to be doing so with any intention beyond getting a better education than is available in the public schools. And the most famous and influential of their friends thus far seem to be so in a "writes for The New Republic" way, not really any different from my friends who attended a magnet school in Northern Virginia. So this networking concern may also coincide with being in specific big cities like NYC, LA.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I wonder if this is partly an urban-with-public-transport thing."

No. Lots of aspects of this topic are NYC-specific but not this one. Kids past a certain age make their own friends, at that age comes before kids are generally going around a city on their own. I didn't take the subway alone until high school, but the social reconfiguration where people became friends with people other than their parents' friends' kids happened around age 10.

Plus, with older kids, there's needing a car and there's needing a car. There are plenty of locales where families do tend to have at least one car, for grocery-shopping, etc., but where kids have some way of getting around (bike, bus, walking) without. That, and there's down time during the school day and extracurricular activities.

As for networking being NYC-specific, I'm not sure why that would be. The idea is, parents of younger kids will want to network with the parents of certain classmates of their kids, and will thus try to have their kids befriend those ones. This is the stuff of sitcoms, and wouldn't seem to require a national-level elite.

PG said...

Kids past a certain age make their own friends, at that age comes before kids are generally going around a city on their own. I didn't take the subway alone until high school, but the social reconfiguration where people became friends with people other than their parents' friends' kids happened around age 10.

Sure, that happened for me long before 10; otherwise I would have had zero friends at school. What I meant was that your parents can somewhat control how much of friends you can be outside school. If they don't take you to see your friend and don't permit other adults to do so, then unless your friend lives in your neighborhood, you can't see her outside school. It's also a classic "very special 7th Heaven" episode to have parents try to keep their kids away from children (or their parents) of whom the parents disapprove.

As for networking being NYC-specific, I'm not sure why that would be. The idea is, parents of younger kids will want to network with the parents of certain classmates of their kids, and will thus try to have their kids befriend those ones.

I misunderstood, I thought you meant that the parents wanted the KIDS to be networking, that the private schools are selling the parents on how their kids will make friends among a set of classmates who later will be influential and helpful to know. This only seemed weird to me at such a young age; it is, from what I can tell, basically how MBA programs function anyway. But you mean the schools are selling enrollment of your kid as a way for you, the *parent*, to get networking opportunities?

Phoebe said...

PG,

You're thinking too extreme. A 10-year-old may have friends a parent wouldn't have selected, but doesn't super-duper-disapprove of. And a desire to see one's kid happily socializing might outweigh a lack of enthusiasm for who with. Not in Tiger Mom 'no sleepovers' orthodoxy, but it can happen.

PG said...

And a desire to see one's kid happily socializing might outweigh a lack of enthusiasm for who with.

To illustrate the popularity of the parenting frame in which your child's short-term happiness has very little weight compared to long-term goals, even if you're not crazy enough to force them to become professional-level musicians without any intention that they actually be musicians for a living, I present the latest installment of the hit NYT series, Asians at Stuyvesant.

They cited their parents’ observance of ancient belief systems like Confucianism, a set of moral principles that emphasizes scholarship and reverence for elders, as well as their rejection of child-rearing philosophies more common in the United States that emphasize confidence and general well-being.

Several students said their parents did not shy away from corporal punishment as a means of motivating them. And they said that rigorous testing was generally an accepted practice in their home countries, with the tests viewed not so much as measures of intelligence, but of industriousness.


(I think one of the more unintentionally-hilarious juxtapositions of the article is referring to Confucianism as a motive a paragraph before quoting and discussing the life of a Bangladeshi-American who is almost certainly a Muslim with no relationship to Confucianism whatsoever. Asians, we're all basically sort of Chinese!)

Phoebe said...

PG,

"Asians, we're all basically sort of Chinese!"

Ha! On that note, a commenter to, I think, the Asians-at-Stuyvesant article was really holding for on the "Japanese" who apparently dominate at Stuyvesant. Interesting, considering the Asian kids at Stuyvesant are almost never Japanese. I guess it was some kind of holdover from an era when "Japanese" was ignorant-generic for "Asian."

But just to repeat, there aren't a whole lot of Asian kids at these prep schools, and those who are there are, as that article said, are considered underrepresented minorities, and are included in programs to help underprivileged minorities get into these schools. The just-UMC subset tended to be white Jewish kids, but I'm not sure how different things would go if the handful included a few multigeneration Asian-American kids as well these days. Once again: Chua-lite isn't Chua-orthodoxy, and families like mine were, are, in the former camp.