Feminism | Posted by Ashley Johnson on 03/7/2017
Embracing My Blackness At Predominantly White Institutions
I wouldn’t say that I necessarily felt white growing up, but I never felt all that black, either. I wasn’t raised to feel in any way less than my white counterparts, but at the same time, my parents never taught or encouraged me to identify strongly with being black. We never had a history lesson on blackness in my home or any in-depth conversations about Dr. King on his birthday. We weren’t part of a black community: we didn’t go to church regularly and were mostly isolated from our extended family—we never had the Tyler Perry-esque big, jolly reunions I saw black families have on TV and in the movies. Rather, my siblings and I were raised to believe that we were, in my mother’s words, “as good as anyone else and better than most”—a mantra which has stuck with me through my 18 years. For a while, this was enough for me.
My high school sits comfortably on the outskirts of Baltimore, a scenic ten-minute drive from Johns Hopkins University. Nestled within a cluster of prestigious private schools, my school stands apart from its neighbors because of its small size. The largest graduating class so far has been my own—the class of 2016—which had only 86 students. We all therefore knew each other well, but despite this familiarity (not to mention the unity our school inspired through many decades-old traditions), we were divided. This division was rooted in the student body and grew from an awareness of our differences: the “one-percenters,” as my mother called them, versus the commoners. The privileged white people versus the people of color.
Although my class had the most students of color of any other class during my time at the school, there was still a social divide among students based on race. Especially among the black girls, there was a continuous contest over who was “black” enough, who was “too white,” too light-skinned, or too dark-skinned. Some black girls at my school handled this dynamic by overcompensating for being in an environment that perhaps made them feel like “traitors” to their race. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, many would loudly call out the white privilege that surrounded them. I took a different approach; I made sure to never perpetuate any black stereotypes. I still avoid the temptation of getting fake hair to this day (for which I was often questioned by my black peers), and my music taste falls on the hipster-stereotype spectrum.
But despite the distinction between how some of my “blacker” peers and I behaved in school, we were still ultimately treated the same way: should one of us (few though we were) voice our opinions, we encountered the “angry black girl” stereotype. We were seen as either too black—outspoken, loud, constantly speaking about Black Bives Matter—or too white, because of the way we talked or the way we dressed. We couldn’t win.
In addition to this social dynamic among students, the school’s administration hardly helped by essentially avoiding any possibilities of racial tension—perhaps in an effort to come across neutral. Though this school praised itself for how much it valued diversity, it simultaneously silenced the history of its students of color: history classes avoided teaching students about topics like slavery as well as the heinous internment camps of Japanese-Americans post–Pearl Harbor.
For a long time, I was blind to these dynamics. I finally became aware of how problematic my school’s approach to race was, however, during a screening of the documentary I’m Not Racist…Am I? my junior year. The movie, which explores the question of whether or not all white people are racist, was perhaps the most controversial movie I’ve ever watched, and certainly the most controversial movie ever shown in my school. But this controversy was still no excuse for how my white peers responded: namely, that it triggered angry retaliation. During a discussion following the film, some rejected the idea of the movie, focusing only on trying to personally defend themselves rather than discuss the broader themes of the film.
My peers of color and I were frustrated by these students’ quick agitation. The documentary made a point of defining racism as connected to privilege, over which white people do not inherently have any control. Yet, many white students still interpreted this claim of “racism” as their personal hatred towards people of other races. While I could understand their rage at feeling put in a box with the likes of Trump or Dylann Roof just because of their race, I was dismayed that they failed to push themselves to think about and question their privilege. My school’s past, consistent avoidance of openly discussing race as a social concept, however, made their reactions to its sudden introduction make sense.
A few weeks later, Freddie Gray was killed in our native Baltimore and riots ensued thereafter. This tragic incident of racialized police brutality could have served as a crucial chance to open dialogue about race in our community. And yet it was ignored. Instead, my school let out half a day early as the riots moved out of the inner-city, and Freddie’s death faded to the background. In the car ride home from school, my mother also failed to use the incident as a teachable moment: She mentioned the tragedy quickly—only as much as she needed to to acknowledge it had happened—and we remained silent as well.
Despite having always had strong opinions, I spent most of my life avoiding politics because I never felt intelligent enough to provide meaningful commentary. But that quickly changed after these incidents. I began to realize that denying my race was as problematic as my white classmates denying their privilege. I made a point of joining Black Awareness and Diversity clubs my junior year, both to expand my own awareness of the ways in which my school fell short and to compensate for being surrounded by whiteness, as many others did. I found these experiences—which took place in safe spaces where being different was encouraged and where difficult subjects were frequent topics of discussion—enlightening. Our debates got heated, but I felt inspired and educated by the experience after every meeting.
I also decided to take these experiences home with me, embracing my the black history calendar my mother’s boyfriend gave us at the beginning of the new year. Each month, the calendar introduced a new historical leader—from Malcolm X to Obama. At the end of the year, she gave me the calendar and encouraged me to read up on the figures represented—as she did as well. At first I was apprehensive, but especially as I continued to watch my black brothers and sisters be targets of police brutality, I became engrossed in our history. I allowed myself the opportunity to identify with people I hadn’t even known existed in the silenced past of my people, unrecognized by my school curriculum.
Now, as a freshman in college, I have come to fully recognize who I am. While I still go to a predominantly white school, this institution is alive with diversity, open to the kinds of thoughtful discussions my high school lacked. Whatever uncertainty I once had about my identity is a distant memory. Being black, as I have come to discover, is a cultural experience, one that has no right or wrong. In my skin, a blend of my mother’s light and my father’s dark, I am yet another variety, free to explore my people free of judgment, finally heard.
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