Growing Up Black in a White World
The "Token Black Girl"
When I was a child, I used to play a game on my first day of school every year. I would sit in each class and count the number of black children that attended as well. I typically found that I was either the only one or one of maybe two or three others. Given the neighborhoods that I grew up in, this rarely ever came as a shock. In fact, by the time I reached college, I found myself intrigued by the level of diversity.
Over the course of my life, I attended 10 schools including college.
Five elementary schools, one middle school, three high schools and one college. I am currently applying to my eleventh school.
My second high school was the only that showed a significant amount of diversity besides Rider University-the college that I am currently attending. Each of the others held the same story. A course dealing with slavery or the Civil Rights Movement would come up and suddenly I was expected to be the expert. Every time a question was asked, each head would slowly turn towards me as if I had all of the answers.
One moment that I remember occurred when I was a junior in high school. My US History class was reviewing the Civil Rights era and the teacher asked me the most peculiar question: "Why did African Americans wear afros at the time?" Apparently my answer wasn't what he was going for. I simply looked at him and replied, "Because that's our natural hair." He actually had the nerve to shake his head no and say, "Well, yes. It is your natural hair, but they also did invented them to make a statement, right?" It took every bit of strength in my body to stop from jumping up and shouting at him, "No, Black people wore afros then and wear them now because that is our natural hair and we take pride in that. We were not obligated to wear our hair straight or to attach straight hair to our own in order to simulate the hair of your women. It is a style that we have sported since the beginning of time because that is how our hair is. It was nothing new during the Civil Rights era. It was not invented. It was not a spontaneous idea. It was a period when we took pride in what is ours." Instead, I sat in my seat and said it. I could tell by the awkward silence in the class and the red cheeks of my teacher that I had caused more than a bit of discomfort. Still, I kept it real.
Another thing that I have noticed is that having grown up in predominantly suburban neighborhoods, I failed to speak with an urban accent. So the first comment I would receive from teachers always fell somewhere under, "You speak very well," which I would interpret as, "You speak really well for a little black girl in an all white neighborhood." Of course, I just accepted the "compliment" and kept it moving. I was used to hearing it. When I was 16, however, I had to put my foot down. I had been attending an outpatient therapy group and one of the supposed "therapists" had a lot to say about the way I speak. The group was in the middle of going over potential coping mechanisms and I began to go over how sketching and painting was one of my favorite mechanisms. I guess Dr. L had enough of my voice because in the middle of me speaking, she angrily spat out, "Quit talking like that. You sound so fake." I still can't decide whether I was more hurt by the fact that she was also an African American female or the fact that this comment came from a woman who was supposed to be helping teenagers suffering through depression, anxiety, self esteem issues, etc. Needless to say, that was my first and last time seeking therapy.
My friends (who were usually white) would playfully make fun of my suburban way of speaking. They would commonly joke that I was the "whitest black girl" that they knew or that they were blacker than I was. It took me years to realize that this wasn't as funny as I previously believed. I take pride in my ethnicity. Although I am not 100% African American, it is a majority of who and what I am. Growing up, whenever I found myself around family members, I would find myself slightly embarrassed at times whenever I spoke. I felt as though I should have had a more "urban sound" to my voice. I commonly found that if I would talk to someone on the phone before meeting them in person that they would be shocked by the fact that I am black. Of course only those bold enough to admit it were the ones to tell me such.
Have you ever dealt with being the only one of your race in a school or work environment?
I choose to think of my experience as a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I did not have to witness much violence, drug abuse, or racism (with the exception of two neighborhoods that are well known for their ignorance and prejudice against minorities). On the other hand, I found myself feeling as though I lacked an identity. I "acted like a white girl" even though I am black which made it difficult to identify with either ethnic group. I had to experience "blind racism" where people would make racially ignorant comments without seeing any problem with it. People found the need to randomly touch my natural hair in amazement- as if it were some sort of scientific phenomenon. I was expected to know every single aspect of black history. I wasn't supposed to like rock or metal- it was supposed to be hip hop and R&B. I had people determining my personality for me when I was nothing more than a child. I was confused for an extremely long time. Even today, I struggle with identity. My friends group is much more diverse which I love. I have recently found myself getting into more urban pop culture that I genuinely enjoy. But there are moments when a person of color will call me out on the way I speak or just blatantly call me a "wanna-be white girl."
My advice, let it go. Even if you are not black, your race is nothing more or less than what you make it. The color of your skin and the thickness of your hair should not predetermine who you are as an individual. People are always going to think what they want to think and the best way to prove them wrong is to be who you choose to be. Of course, it is wonderful to take pride in your heritage and your ethnicity and I encourage it 100%. However, do not ever allow anyone to tell you that you are less than what you truly are because you stray away from your ethnicity's stereotypes and expectations. If you are black, no matter how much you know about your history, no matter how you talk, no matter how you walk, you are still black. Own it. Take pride in that. You are nothing other than what you make yourself.