By: Danielle Smith
I went to a predominantly white Catholic school from the age of three until my graduation. Over the years, I heard some rather unsavory things said about blacks by my teachers and classmates. It definitely wasn’t easy to walk the line between standing up for myself and other blacks whenever doing so was necessary and remaining compliant enough for the faculty to have a favorable opinion of me (letters of recommendation are important, y’all). Despite these stresses, I do not think that I would be who I am today without these experiences.
Because my school was so small, there was only one honors class for each grade. The honors class spent the whole school day together, so my school experience was pretty insular. The limited availability of spots in the honors program made it a little harder to get in. I made it, but not many other black students did.
Those of us who did make it ended up becoming pretty close, but did not spend much time with the other black students unless we were involved in the same activities. The race ratio in the honors class was even more skewed than in the school as a whole, so my white classmates (and some of the teachers) felt as if they could get away with racist statements and jokes.
I was often asked to be a sort of spokesperson for black people, much to my dismay. My classmates wanted me to explain why other blacks felt a certain way about some issues, even though they never asked me how I personally felt. When Barack Obama won the presidential race, I was asked over and over if my parents voted for him because of his race, and watched as my peers mourned “the death of the country.”
I was expected to know the views of the black community as a whole, as if there is a whole community of blacks united as a race on every front, and I was expected to conform to their white conservative views at the same time. Naturally, I refused and this made me a sort of outsider in my class.
People constantly joked about how blacks can’t read, told me that I would get into college because of affirmative action, and said I was pretty for a black girl. I heard my classmates pine for the Old South, and insist that the Civil War had absolutely nothing to do with slavery. I did my best to keep these sayings from affecting me, but they did catch me off guard at times. Confronting them about their ignorance only egged them on, so I concealed my feelings from my classmates for the most part, and promised myself that I would come out on top.And I did.
They said blacks can’t read, and I made a 36 on the reading portion of the ACT. They said I wouldn’t get into college based on my own merit, and I got academic scholarship offers from every school I applied to.
My classmates always knew I was one of the smartest in the class, but now they knew just how far I was willing to go to prove it. Unfortunately, based on my achievements, they determined that I was different from other blacks. I fought against the notion of my being a credit to my race, and I continue to do so today.
Now, I am armed with knowledge that I use to combat ignorance. I do not see most of my classmates these days, but I keep them in check when I come across something prejudiced that they post online. In college, I have found the time to read the works of great black authors and thinkers, and to use these ideas to shape my own thoughts.
Despite the fact that I ended up at a predominantly white institution, I have developed a fuller understanding of black history and the struggles we still face today. Before college, all of my knowledge of black history was acquired outside of school; now, I have the opportunity to discuss the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, and other tremendously influential blacks with my peers. For the most part, my new classmates and professors respect black culture, and I am no longer pressured to be a spokesperson for my race.
To anyone facing struggles similar to the ones I faced, please know that there is a way out: education. Educate yourself about what is going on in politics, black history, and know your school material backwards and forwards. Blacks truly do have to work twice as hard just to get the same respect as a mediocre white person, sadly. While you are bettering yourself, do not forget to help other blacks that may need your help. Use your knowledge to help others succeed, too. Education has provided a way out for our people in the past, and it can do the same for us now.