Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What lurks beyond the bagel shop

Lawrenceville, which I previously knew as the boarding school next to the so-so bagel shop we'd go to before discovering the far superior one in the Montgomery shopping center, is apparently more than just a bagel-adjacent landmark. It's also the most expensive high school in the nation. And - I learned from Jezebel and Twitter - it's the site of the race-and-privilege scandal of the moment. The student body president - black, female, and gay - had to step down after taking to the Instagram to make fun of the douchier elements of the white, male, and straight student population. If I had a thesis-driven sort of argument to make about this, I'd pitch and fast. As it stands, too scattered for that. So:

-This part of NJ is maybe not the least racist place ever. Even I, someone female and paler than most, have seen firsthand how young black men are questioned by the police, how black men of all ages are avoided and hassled on the train. If this is what I'm seeing, I'd imagine there's more I'm not seeing. There's also preppy culture, which is hard to explain, but which goes beyond whatever's experienced at any particular private school or college in the area. It's so white that even white people notice the whiteness. Friends even whiter than I am (being, as regular readers know, pale but ethnic) have pointed this out.

-Private schools are weird. They can end up this odd mix of rich white kids (getting in through the usual rich-white-person channels) and poor non-white kids (getting in through some mix of intellect, hard work, and having adults around devoted to their education), in some kind of tremendous exaggeration of society at large. As in, "white" becomes associated with wealth, "black" with poverty, in a way that far exceeds the situation at a regular public school. (From Buzzfeed: "Lawrenceville students say racial and class divides — which frequently work in tandem because minority students often come to boarding schools through scholarship organizations [...]." So it went at my private elementary-and-middle school in New York.) The numbers may say "diversity," but the reality can be something more complicated.

-The specific black, female student at the center of the controversy, the student-body president who had to step down after mocking douche-bro classmates on Instagram, was not on scholarship. Commenter Pronetolaughter, if you're reading, this begins to get at how "privilege" as a term can fail where "racism" succeeds at conveying a problem. As the half of the internet that's already weighed in on this has noted, if you're at an elite high school that costs $53k a year, certainly if you're not there on scholarship, you have just a touch of unearned advantage. As in, you're richer and probably better-connected than most. But! That doesn't mean you're not also the victim of some other sort of oppression - in this case, racism. Confederate flags, insistence that she didn't really win the election, and other racist incidents cited in the Buzzfeed piece suggest that the young woman in question had good reason to be fed up.

-But oh, social media! It's bad judgment - if entirely age-appropriate bad judgment - to have an Instagram mocking your classmates, particularly if you want to lead your classmates. Back in the day, the mocking of entitled douche-bro classmates happened, sure, but in private. Buzzfeed reports that this wasn't even the student's first blip of this nature - she'd already been in trouble for pot photos (real, and forwarded by someone trying to sabotage her) and racist tweets (invented by someone trying to sabotage her). If someone's out to get you - perhaps because you're a black lesbian in a position of power in a traditionalist environment? - then you, whoever you are, certainly if you're high school aged, have probably left incriminating dribs and drabs all over the internet and even if you have not, they can be created.

-The Jezebels are arguing about reverse racism - is it a thing? The usual argument - that you can't be racist against a group with more power in society than you have - is mostly right, but not entirely. For example: anti-Semites believe Jews to be more powerful than they are. That's how that form of racism works. For another example: one group may have more power than another in society at large, but not in, say, a particular community. It doesn't seem impossible that the only white kid at a high school would have a tough time. But yes, in usual situations, it holds. And here, I suppose I'm not entirely sure why this is being cited as an example of anti-white anything. What this young woman was mocking was a subculture, not a race. Is the idea that a white person mocking a black subculture would come across as racist? Perhaps, but this is exactly where the power-imbalance thing enters into it. No one thinks all white people are douchey lacrosse players (with all due respect to non-douchey lacrosse players), whereas conflation of minority groups with equivalent subcultures is definitely a thing. (I guarantee that every American Jewish woman has, whether she knows it or not, been called a JAP, no matter how hippie-dippie her routine.) But more to the point, she was making fun of white people who fly Confederate flags, in the North at that. Regardless of where one stands on it being possible or not to be racist against white people, I don't think you can be racist for mocking certain white people's racism.


caryatis said...

Let's see...the girl's black, gay, rich, and popular. I'm not too worried about her.

Confederate flags in New Jersey, huh?

abrahamandsarah said...

Were there pictures of the confederate flags? I'm not shocked that some of the students at her school could be racist, but wealthy kids in the north don't fly confederate flags. They look down on and mock the sorts of poor white people who do.

It doesn't make sense.

Glove Slap said...

Guys, why would you assume that all the students at Lawrenceville are native to the north, just because the school is in the north?

I can tell you from experience, having been born and raised in Atlanta, GA that confederate flag-flying is not limited to those southern whites of low socioeconomic status. It is a perfectly normal thing for middle and upper class southerners to do, and quite preppy. I even had one mixed-race high school classmate (one black parent) who wore a t-shirt with the confederate flag on it because his (white) clique had these shirts printed up and they all wore them. I absolutely believe that plenty of students at the most expensive high school in America display confederate flags.

(And having known many of these people and experienced no overt racism or antagonism from them (I'm black), I can tell you they truly, honestly, can't or won't understand our objection to their precious flag-- but that's another topic.)

Let's not even get into the possibility that some of the confederate flag-fliers are foreign students who don't understand the flag's connotations and simply associate it with "America" and "rock n roll"-- because I've run across a handful of those as well and it is conceivable that some of those may attend an expensive American boarding school and fit into American preppy culture like a hand in glove.

Phoebe said...

What Glove Slap said. It's an elite boarding school, one not that far from the South, so there's no reason to assume the students are from in-state. That, and this part of NJ isn't all that northern, culturally. At least that's what they say. I've never been to the relevant parts of the South, so what do I know, but apparently there's some overlap between this preppiness and Southern preppiness. But even in NYC, there were kids at preppy schools who spent vacations in (all-?) white rich vacation communities in the South. Also, this student's wasn't the only account I saw of the school having those flags in its dorm rooms.

Petey said...

FWIW, in my past, I've ended up on a couple of trips to 'exclusive' boarding schools in the Northeast, (north of NJ), and yup, Confederate flags.

Also FWIW, it wasn't Southern transplants. It was Northerners who liked the connotations. A minority to be sure, but they're there. And the Venn diagram between them and lacrosse players is likely not without significant overlap.

But let's not miss the real point here. We should boycott those who want to boycott Confederate flag flying prep school boys. That's what's really important here.

abrahamandsarah said...

I guess I'm out of touch with northeast prep school kids. That's wild. In the midwest, where I grew up, there was no way rich kids would fly confederate flags. That's only done by poor kids.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time (still?), Princeton University was known as the "northernmost Southern college." Lawrenceville, NJ is lots closer to the old Confederacy than prep schools in Massachusets, Connecticut, etc. JM