On a recent morning, 20 or so high school students, most of them white, milled about the meetinghouse at Friends Seminary, a private school in Manhattan. They were trying to unload on their classmates slips of paper on which they had jotted down words related to the topic “Things I don’t want to be called.”
Several girls tried get to rid of “ditsy.” A sophomore in jeans and a gray hoodie who identifies as Asian-American was seeking to unload “minority.” And several white students, including a long-limbed girl in a checkered lumberjack shirt, wanted to get rid of “privileged.” Under the rules of the exercise, no other student was obligated to accept it.
“It’s just a very strong word to use,” the last girl said. “I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things. I think it has a negative connotation.”
The workshop was part of a daylong speaker series known at Friends as the Day of Concern. Students gathered in small groups to discuss a variety of social justice issues and participate in workshops; there were also talks about gender and the environment. But the overarching theme of the day was identity, privilege and power. And it was part of a new wave of diversity efforts that some of the city’s most elite private schools are undertaking.
In the past, private school diversity initiatives were often focused on minority students, helping them adjust to the majority white culture they found themselves in, and sometimes exploring their backgrounds in annual assemblies and occasional weekend festivals. Now these same schools are asking white students and faculty members to examine their own race and to dig deeply into how their presence affects life for everyone in their school communities, with a special emphasis on the meaning and repercussions of what has come to be called white privilege.
The session at Friends Seminary, on East 16th Street, was led by Derrick Gay, a 39-year-old diversity consultant who has led similar programs atCollegiate School on the Upper West Side, Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights and the Spence School on the Upper East Side.
Mr. Gay, who is black, says schools are increasingly drawn to conversations about privilege and race because they understand that “raising students to live in a bubble — a white bubble, a black bubble, a Latino bubble, whatever type of bubble you want to call it — is not to your benefit in a global society.”
For most of their history, private schools were the living embodiment of white privilege: They were almost all white and mostly moneyed. Not anymore. This year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, minority students make up a third of the population of New York City private schools, and 18.5 percent of all students receive financial aid.
Educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college and beyond, maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America. In turn, faculty members and students are grappling with race and class in ways that may seem surprising to outsiders and deeply unsettling to some longtime insiders. And the term “white privilege” is now bantered about with frequency.
It comes up during schoolwide assemblies like a recent one held to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as LREI, a progressive school in the West Village. It is explored at parent gatherings at the Dalton School on East 89th Street during broader conversations about racial equity. It is examined in seventh-grade social studies at the Calhoun School on West End Avenue, where students read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1989 article by Peggy McIntosh that outlines dozens of ways white people experience “unearned skin privilege.”
And at a few schools, students and faculty members are starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings. The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance.
“In the past, there was a tendency to think: This isn’t my problem and it isn’t something I need to deal with because it isn’t something I even think a lot about,” said Louisa Grenham, a white senior at Brooklyn Friends School and a member of a white affinity group there.
“Whiteness” as a concept is not new. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about it in the 1920s; James Baldwin addressed it in the 1960s. But it did not gain traction on college campuses until the 1980s, as an outgrowth of an interdisciplinary study of racial identity and racial superiority. It presumes that in the United States, race is a social construct that had its origins in colonial America when white plantation owners were seeking dominance and order.
Today “white privilege” studies center on the systemic nature of racism as well as the way it exposes minorities to daily moments of stress and unpleasantness — sometimes referred to as “micro-aggressions.” Freedom from such worries is a privilege in and of itself, the theory goes, one that many white people are not even aware they have.
It may seem paradoxical that students at elite institutions would decide to tackle the elitism they seem to cherish. But private schools’ diversity consultants brush aside insinuations that their social justice work is inauthentic.
In recent months, for example, as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, on Staten Island, have prompted protests, schools have tried to make the conversation relevant for their students, taking them to Black Lives Matter marches and honoring white civil rights leaders in schoolwide assemblies.
Talking about “whiteness,” administrators say, gives white students a way into conversations about equity and prejudice that previous diversity efforts at their schools may have excluded them from.
At the LREI high school campus, the front entrance is adorned with a student art project, by the seniors Ana Maroto and Sage Adams, that includes a black-and-white photo of a somber-looking teenager, who identifies as mixed-race, holding a placard that reads: “I need justice because I’m sick of having to explain privilege.”
At the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, two white seniors started the Exploring Whiteness club in the fall, which now regularly attracts 15 students. They were inspired by reading “Waking Up White,” a memoir by Debby Irving, a self-proclaimed WASP from New England who discovered in her late 40s that many of the benefits her father had received in housing and education from the G.I. Bill had been denied to millions of African-American veterans. In the book, Ms. Irving writes about “stepping out of a dream” and realizing that the black people she knew lived in a more challenging world than she ever would face.
Every year, an increasing number of New York City private schools select students to attend the White Privilege Conference, founded 16 years ago by Eddie Moore Jr., the former diversity director at Brooklyn Friends. This year, the theme of the conference, organized by the Dalton School, is “Race, Privilege, Community Building.”
The new focus on addressing white privilege has not been an unmitigated success. Dr. Moore, for example, despite the stature of his conference, is no longer working with Brooklyn Friends. Acknowledging the inherent tension, he said: “Not every student is saying: ‘I want to talk about white privilege. Give me the best book.’ ”
For years, private schools in New York avoided conversations about race and class by remaining uniformly white and wealthy. They began desegregating in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, as programs for low-income students like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance brought in minority scholarship students. Many white parents welcomed the change, worried that their children would be ill prepared for an increasingly multicultural world if they did not have exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. Today, for example, at LREI, Calhoun and Dalton, at least one-third of the student body is not white.
At some of the city’s top neighborhood public elementary schools, nonwhite populations are actually lower. At both Public School 6, on the Upper East Side, and P.S. 41, in Greenwich Village, 21 percent of the students in the 2013-14 school year were nonwhite, according to state figures. At P.S. 41, that is a dip from 31 percent in the 2003-4 school year.
Many of the private schools have struggled, though, to make these new minority students feel welcome, oscillating between a colorblind philosophy and a feel-good “festival approach” — reserving light discussions about race and class for Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Black History Month and an annual assembly or two.
That approach, diversity directors say, has proved ineffective.
Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and the author of “White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son,” said: “If you’re still talking about food and festivals and fabrics with high school students, you’re probably not pushing them to think critically about these bigger issues.”
Indeed, in recent years, several documentaries filmed inside these schools — including Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s“American Promise,” Kavery Kaul’s “Long Way From Home” and “Allowed to Attend,” produced by Trinity’s director of communications — present in excruciating detail the alienation many minority students experience. The schools are depicted as institutions teeming with white students oblivious to their outsize privilege — the lavishness of their spring-break vacations, weekend homes and lunch money — and unaware of the challenges faced by their less privileged classmates.
In “The Prep School Negro,” the filmmaker André Robert Lee explores what it was like to be one of the few African-American students enrolled, on scholarship, in the 1980s at Germantown Friends, an elite Quaker school in Philadelphia. He has taken his film, first completed in 2008 and reworked in 2014, to hundreds of schools around the country. He maintains that the screenings have helped spur conversations about race and class that would not have been possible even 15 years ago.
Mr. Lee is now touring schools with another film he produced, “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” Commissioned by the Calhoun School, the film follows 12 New York City private and public school students for a year while they attend workshops exploring racism and white privilege. “School administrators tell me: ‘We realize we have a lot more work to do on these issues,’ ” Mr. Lee said.
Administrators at Friends Seminary would seem to agree. In January, students gathered in the school’s slate-gray meetinghouse, a room virtually unchanged since 1860, to watch a presentation by Mr. Gay, a classically trained opera singer and the former director of community life and diversity at the Nightingale-Bamford School, a private institution for girls on the Upper East Side. With slides, videos and a series of pen-and-paper exercises, Mr. Gay talked to the students about how race, class, gender and ablebodiedness influence people’s perspective and contribute to whether they feel welcome “inside a space.”
During an exercise called “Who Are You?” Mr. Gay asked students to create their own “identity cards,” writing down terms they wanted to be associated with, in stark contrast to the other exercise, which focused on unwanted identities. One girl wrote “white,” “SoHo” and “Sag Harbor”; another wrote “a very nice person.” Then students paired up, with one responding to the question “Who are you?” The room erupted in noise, with students shouting, “black,” “white,” “straight,” “lesbian,” “Jewish,” “Spanish” and “smart.”
“Everyone has a card,” Mr. Gay told the students. “It’s called an identity card. Society doesn’t value each of these identities equally.”
Later he added: “It’s no one’s fault. But you should be aware of it.”
During another seminar that day, Darnell L. Moore, a writer and activist from Camden, N.J., divided students into small groups, giving them large sheets of paper and felt-tip markers and asking them to develop social-status charts, based on current conditions in America and general perceptions.
The students produced strikingly similar charts, with several envisioning a straight, white male as the most powerful citizen and a poor, black single mother as the least powerful one.
“It was kind of gross how easy it was to be able to say, ‘This person has to be this,’ ” said Camille Fillion-Raff, a junior at the school.
Educators who do this work in New York private schools say one of the challenges white students face when exploring their own identity is the dearth of white anti-racist role models. They say white students have traditionally been offered only three ways to confront race: to be colorblind, ignorant or racist.
“Those are not happy identities,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College and the author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
With that in mind, the Trevor Day School on East 89th Street spends at least some time every year honoring the white civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, while working to register black voters. This year, the school invited Mr. Goodman’s brother, David, to speak at the school.
But helping students explore their white identity has not been without its challenges.
At the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, which has campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx, a plan this winter to roll out a racial awareness workshop series for third through fifth graders was met with fierce resistance by parents. Many objected that children as young as 8 were being asked to segregate themselves into race-based affinity groups. Ultimately, parents were told, students who chose not to identify with any of the racial categories would be allowed to sign up for a group that was not based on race. A fifth grader’s father, a white man who asked not to be identified because he did not want any repercussions for his daughter, called the plan “mind-boggling” and said his daughter found the entire concept confusing and unsettling.
At Brooklyn Friends, a controversy over the approach of Dr. Moore, the school’s former diversity director, ended abruptly when he left at the end of last year and did not return this fall. Many students, like Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a black senior, said Dr. Moore was a warm and stimulating figure at the school who talked openly about what he called “subconscious racial bias.” But several sources inside the school said some white students complained that Dr. Moore was a polarizing figure whose focus on white privilege made them uncomfortable. Both Dr. Moore and a school representative described his departure as “amicable.”
At LREI, Sandra Chapman, the director of diversity and community, said conversations about white privilege could be difficult, with some students and faculty members more willing to engage than others. “This is messy work,” she said. “But these conversations are necessary.”