Q&A with Black Alum of a Predominantly White School

As a senior in high school, my graduation is approaching, and as a black student who has gone to predominantly white schools my whole life, I wondered how this has impacted others like me going forward. 

To answer this question I decided to speak with Camille Lafayette, a black alum from my school, Piedmont High’s class of 2007, in order to get her perspective on how attending a predominantly white high school has impacted her, and other black students. She, like me, has spent most of her life at mostly white schools. She was also the commencement speaker at PHS’s 2021 high school graduation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

August Thigpen: So overall, what would you say your experience was like at Piedmont High School? 

Camille Lafayette: I went to Piedmont schools from K to 12. Starting at the high school felt like a continuation of my entire education there. So I knew everybody, likewise everybody knew me. Being the only black girl in my class it was almost impossible not to know me, or to miss me.

AT: How did your black identity specifically impact your life at Piedmont High school? 

CL: I actually wrote my college essay about being the only black girl in my class at Piedmont. Because of my parents values, I was taught very much to be proud of my identity. There’s definitely moments where I was tested, being in a space where there’s no one else like me around me, and there were many moments. I distinctly remember sitting in history class, we had a lesson on civil rights, and at the time, my teacher had a background in African American history. We did a Black Panther tour and I remember sitting in class, when questions would come up and people would look at me like I had the answer. 

AT: Do you remember any other specific instances of your identity impacting your experience? 

CL: I had a joint 16th birthday party with one of my friends. Most of her friends are from Piedmont, and mine were 50/50 split down the middle, and many of my friends that weren’t from Piedmont were black. And so, we had the party at a venue, had a DJ, bouncers, and a guest list. I remember people asking me if I thought the party was going to be safe, and I was very confused about why. That came up from students, people I’ve known my entire life, and then also their parents. And that wasn’t the only one. That was a very clear moment where I identified, this is something that these folks are believing either because of my friends’ race, or because they’re not from the Piedmont Community. That there could be danger at my 16th birthday party or that I have friends who are not safe to be around. 

AT: Did your experience in high school being the only black girl in your class influence your decision for what college you wanted to go to? 

CL: It absolutely informed where I was applying. I distinctly remember looking at black percentage rates whenever I looked up a college, or where the city was. I remember thinking “If I’m going to go to school that doesn’t have black people, it can’t be in the middle of nowhere, it’s got to be in a big city where there’s other black people. Where can I get my hair done? Where do I see other people?” That was a very big thing. I ended up deciding between UCLA and Spelman, which are very different schools. When I ultimately decided on UCLA, despite the numbers, it was a very positive experience and there was a strong sense of community with the black students that were already there and the ones that I met when I came in at the admitted student weekend. 

AT: Do you remember any other instances of your identity impacting your college process?

CL: I clearly remember when I got into UCLA, Piedmont is very small so people find out things very quickly without me sharing. I remember getting my admissions email. At the same time, one of my friends had called me to share that she had gotten in, and as I’m opening mine, I’m figuring out that I got in too. The next day I went to school, by that time other people already knew I got in and I very distinctly remember people saying “congratulations, you just got in because of affirmative action”. For one, UCLA doesn’t do that, and two, do you know what affirmative action actually is? There’s a lot loaded there. But like that was one of the instances where it felt like people were looking at me as an anomaly. Like, how could you have gotten into UCLA? And I think the same thing and my work life, people still say similar things like, oh, you went to UCLA? Like it’s a surprise that I got in and I graduated from there.

AT: Do you think your experience at Piedmont High as the only black girl in your class impacted your experience now in the working world? 

CL: Absolutely. It’s like a Catch 22, because I think it’s like a for better and for worse situation. I’ve had the experience of being the only black one in many spaces, and that is absolutely the same as I stepped into the working world, and that can be pretty jarring. Unfortunately, I had to build tools in order to step into those spaces. I hope that the future generations don’t have to have those same kinds of tools just to be seen and valued in those spaces in the same way, but I do think this has prepared me to step into mostly white spaces as an adult in the working world.  And then I think on the flip side, I think it has reinforced this idea that America likes to tote that being black is not a celebrated or positive thing. And I think that’s something that I celebrate and that is in large part because of the experiences that I had, especially that at Piedmont. 

AT: Relating to your overall experience at Piedmont, what would you hope for the future? 

CL: I mean, I hope that the racial demographics of not only the school, but the community as a whole would change. It’s still wild to me just given the demographics of the Bay Area in general. I would hope to see more diversity within the administration too, I think all of that makes a big difference in experience that students have. I do remember there were a couple more black students, that came in maybe for about a year, either in high school or in middle school, I think because so many folks already know each other, it’s a really hard adjustment. And so they left. But I also recognize, part of that is because of folks just not knowing how to create inclusive spaces. So that would definitely be my hope. 

AT: What advice would you have for younger black students in predominantly white schools like Piedmont High School?

CL: The first is that it’s temporary. Regardless of whether it’s that you’re in a white institution and you’re the only black student, or you just don’t jive with the people there, your people are out there, somewhere, whatever that means for you. And my advice would be to always be yourself. The people that like you will be there for you, the people that aren’t won’t, that’s fine. You don’t need those people. But I think it’s really easy to be in that space and feel like you don’t fit in and feel like you have to conform. That would be my advice. Stand in who you are, there will be folks who are there for you and folks that aren’t. And that’s fine. You can ignore them, and move along.