Imagine walking into a classroom where no one looks like you, and the distinct difference of your skin color makes you easy to spot. This has been my experience for most of my life.
Growing up, I went to schools that were predominantly white. Being the only person in a classroom who is immediately, obviously different is intimidating and nerve-racking. When I was little, kids would ask me what color I was, whether I was "mixed," and why I didn’t look like them. All I knew was that I was black.
Their questions weren't just uncomfortable, but ignorantly implied that being black wasn’t a good thing or meant I wasn’t as smart as them. Other students were regularly surprised when I knew the right answer to a question, and when I told a few friends that my dad was an engineer, they said they were shocked "because he’s black." The most common thing I heard was: "I wasn’t expecting you to sound so white when you talk."
Those comments affected my schoolwork. From a young age, I felt disheartened whenever I got bad grades on homework, quizzes, or tests — especially when I saw other kids doing better. I wondered if it was because I’m black, if my peers were right and black kids just weren't as smart. But even when I received a grade that was above a C+, I still didn’t get the same response as everyone else. Instead, I was told, "Wow, you’re so educated for a black girl."
This continued in high school. As senior year approached and I began applying for colleges, my hard work paid off. I may not have been the smartest person in my class, but my tireless effort earned me scholarships. Yet white students told me and the other students of color that we'd only gotten those scholarship offers, or been accepted into college at all, because we’re black. They always said these hurtful things in a joking manner, but I could tell their words were at least partially serious. It seemed that my accomplishments would always be squandered by this negativity, all because of the color of my skin.
I anticipated that I would be the only student of color in most of my college classes, and I was right. I became the representative of my entire race in these classrooms, always expected to answer questions on behalf of all people of color. I also had to answer endless questions about my hair — explaining that it didn't grow half a foot overnight but is a weave (I mean honestly, how could I grow five inches of hair in a night?). I was timid about discussing social issues or what it's like to be black, afraid that everyone would think I was just an "angry black girl." The few times there were other students of color in my classes, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
For the longest time, I excused the people who made these comments and made me feel this way. I told myself that they weren’t personally at fault; maybe they had never been taught how to interact with people from different backgrounds and didn't understand what's offensive and what’s not. I let them off the hook because I figured their parents had raised them this way, and children are supposed to abide by what their parents teach them.
Worse, instead of blaming them, I blamed myself. I believed that I was the problem, that I just needed to do better at acting in a way that others deemed appropriate. Instead of being outgoing in school — like I was whenever I was with my black friends — I became quieter, more of a people-pleaser. I worried that behavior like using slang words would play into stereotypes about people of color, so I tried to use my "white side" in front of my white peers: I acted academically inclined and spoke "properly."
This created a lot of internal conflict. Should I alter my behavior based on the negative way my culture is often perceived and become known, to my black friends, as an "oreo," as abandoning where I come from and who I am? Or should I be myself, even if that meant being perceived by my white peers as "wrong" or "improper"?
Over time, I learned to stop blaming myself. Now that I'm older, I'm able to see these comments and attitudes for what they truly were: part of the larger cultural messaging that equates being white with being smart and being black with being uneducated. I particularly paid more attention to the way the media influenced my thought process — like how TV shows usually cast black women as angry, broken, or "ghetto" and black men as thugs, absent fathers, or violent. I realized that these portrayals influenced the way my fellow students reacted to the fact that I didn't match these stereotypes.
I also realized that I had been making up excuses for all the people who perpetuated that messaging, when I should never have been so concerned about what other people thought of me in the first place. I was so caught up in wanting to fit in, please everyone, and not make a scene that I failed to address or correct their ignorant assumptions about me. I held myself back from speaking the truth — and instead made their lies my truth.
Ultimately, I've learned that my culture is part of who I am, a part about which I can and should feel proud. If I don't use my voice and correct people when they say offensive things to me, I am allowing and even encouraging them to continue to do so. In classrooms I now speak up and inform those who haven’t gone through experiences like mine about how they can become more aware of what they’re saying. I've found that a lot of the time, people don't realize their statements are problematic until someone brings it to their attention. I've learned not to avoid these opportunities to educate others, and most of the time when I do, they're not the only ones who learn something: I do, too.
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