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Photo by Nazri.

I was a black teenager drowning in whiteness and didn’t even know it

After my parents divorced, we moved to small, mostly white town in Southern Illinois. It was racist. I can’t put it any plainer than that. I write about one of the incidents that happened to me in a piece called “Ask any black person, and they can tell you the first time they were called a nigger.” Other things happened there too, and I may address those in the future. But I want to talk about how being surrounded by whiteness and white supremacy affected me throughout most of my formative years.

I was smart. Not mensa smart but always close to the top of my class. My teachers and classmates knew it. I had mostly white friends, and that didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. My older sister was two years ahead of me and also a good student. She was very popular, so it was easy to be liked by my white teachers and classmates when she paved the way for me. I sailed through elementary school onto high school on the wings of compliments and praise from the white adults in my life who worked at the school (I had very few black teachers). My biology teacher told me I should consider going to medical school. My English teacher hoped that I would become a writer (and I am!) and awarded me the highest grade in her class my junior year. I could go on, but you get the picture. I lapped up those words. I was smart, and I knew it. I was also one of the few black students in our high school and one of the even fewer who were expected to succeed. The others were good to poor students. This is where the whiteness blinded me, and it took me years to figure out how insidious white people were in their denigration of those black students. And me.

I remember countless times, black students being viciously shamed in class for not turning in homework or being late to class — much more than the white students who were doing the exact same thing. I would get angry at them and think, “Why are you acting like that? Why can’t you just try?” Little did I realize just how hard I had to try to fit into that whiteness. I joined clubs, volunteered at events, auditioned for plays and played sports. I must have thought I was some kind of chameleon, that if I tried hard enough, my blackness would fade into the background.

Once I was working the concession stand at a high school basketball game, and a black student came up to order food. I didn’t know him, only his name. I slid his food across the counter, and he put his closed hand out, palm down, as if to give me money. But when he opened up his palm, he simply slid his fingers over my hand. His hand was empty. He looked worried as he did this, unsure if I would snitch. I didn’t. But I was annoyed that he would steal money from the school. That’s how I saw it. It never occurred to me that maybe he couldn’t afford to buy food. Few of the black families in town were financially stable, including my own from time to time, but I just couldn’t make the connection. Of course, I’m not sure that this is why he didn’t pay, but the fact that I didn’t even entertain it… it embarrasses me. Would I have had the same response if a white student had done this? I don’t know. And this embarrasses me, too.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about any of the other black students. I thought that my white friends were enough for me. I didn’t realize what I was missing out on by not befriending any of the black students. I must have emanated this foul white supremacy odor because the other black students wanted nothing to do with me either.

I readily ingested that superior thinking, and at the time, I must have enjoyed it because I drank it up. I thought I was better than them. I believed that I wasn’t one of them. I would never be treated that way because white people at school thought I was just as good as them.

Never mind that I had been called a nigger on numerous occasions in this town. Because the culprits were white people I didn’t respect anyway, the word stung, but I didn’t connect those people to the teachers and other white adults I tried so hard to impress in school.

Everything changed for me in an English composition class taught by a white female teacher. I had already heard it was a hard class from other students, but what did I care? I was a good student and a good writer.

Those first weeks in class were my wake-up call.

Now, I was one of those students who loved to raise my hand and answer questions. After our first reading assignment, the teacher was discussing some of the themes in the writing. She asked us what we thought.

A few hands shot up, including mine.

One white student gets called on to answer…

Another white student…

Another white student…

It’s down to me and a white student…

She gets called on.

This woman looks me dead in my face as my hand is still up and says, “Okay, let’s move on to the next theme.”

The other students looked at me, I guess expecting me to say something. But I was too shocked to utter a word.

The same thing happened for the rest of the class and throughout the semester. The only time she called on me was if she had to — and that was when I was the only student with my hand up, which didn’t happen very often.

I woke up. That whiteness that I believed protected me fell away, and I realized that to her, I was just an uppity, know-it-all black girl. She was going to make me pay for not knowing my place. It was a horrible semester.

What grade did I get in the class? I got an “A.” Go figure. Even though she obviously hated me, she couldn’t deny that I was a good student. Usually when I get A’s, I’m ecstatic. But this time? I only cared because it kept my GPA up. Otherwise, it meant nothing to me. I felt no sense of accomplishment.

As I finished my last two years of high school, I would begin to see many of those white teachers for what they really were — defenders of white supremacy. As I witnessed other black students punished or ignored, I finally understood what was going on. Their job was to teach, but their calling was to oppress and uphold their whiteness by any means necessary.

I would see this pattern of white educators and other white people in authority upholding white supremacy throughout college and my career. This included the older white female professor in my “Women in the Media” class who stated that she was against affirmative action. I knew this was aimed at me and another black female student in the class. Then there was my college guidance counselor, who kept telling me I was lucky that I was well-spoken because it would be much easier for me to get a job. And my residence hall director, who would make snide comments about my “nice clothes” as if I didn’t deserve to wear them. Then my manager at a corporation, a gay white man, who knew I was being harassed by another white man in the office and told me to just do my job. I endured that environment for seven years before I finally left. The numerous colleagues I worked with in higher education who underestimated my abilities and ignored my accomplishments simply because I was a black woman.

Although high school woke me up, it wouldn’t be until my 30s that I found my voice and started speaking up against this white supremacist violence. Even though I knew that having a voice and calling white people on their words and actions would cost me in my professional life, I did it. I still do. If staying quiet means that I am rewarded a promotion or a better-paying position, I don’t want that blood on my hands. I’ll take the harder path and stay true to myself. I spent too much time drowning in whiteness. Now it’s time to swim in the warm waves of my blackness and fight for my people.