Fitting In vs. Standing Out: Being Black in Predominantly White Schools

Featured Artwork: Aishwarya Srivastava

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A few months ago, I had a problem. Not specifically my problem, of course, but I had heard about it and, as one does, I involved myself in this problem. After all, it was indirectly meant for me.

It was a Friday evening either in late November or early December. I had opened my Snapchat and tapped into my group chat. Scrolling through the recent messages, I found my friends had shared a post of a kid saying a racial slur.

Yes, that one. And yes, he was.

My friends and I were pissed, for lack of a better term. We talked to one another for a bit, before we spoke to this kid, to which he responded by saying, “It was offensive in the 1980s”, and that we had no right to be “butthurt” about that word anymore.

Now, a little background information for those who don’t know:

  • The word “nigger” was used even before slavery… which was definitely not in the 1980s. Neither was the Civil Rights Movement. So where the ‘80s comes into play here, I don’t know.
  • Non-black people are not allowed to say it.
  • No, we don’t care that you grew up in New York, that your friend doesn’t mind, or that you are also a person of color.
  • The word will always be offensive to us when a non-black person says it.

My friends wanted to fight. But one of them said that if we instigated a fight, we would get in trouble. So, in true Karen fashion, I emailed our school principal. In it, I gave a brief summary of the situation so I could request a meeting. He then emailed back referring me to our assistant principal, whom I met with the following Monday. My friend and I explained the story further and she took down names, before telling us she wanted to do more.

The assistant principal mentioned that out of the 900 students attending our school, only about 30 of us were Black. She told us that while we can’t change how a person chooses to believe, we can at least change how they express their controversial beliefs at school.

We talked for a while with the assistant principal about our experiences going to school in our district as Black students. It was emotional. It was hard. It was awkward and maybe a little uncomfortable. But we laid it all out on the table.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we talked game plans. We had gotten a number of the Black students willing to participate. It was decided that we would do a student-led panel directed at the teachers to talk about the Black experience at school. The number narrowed down to five of us, plus two teachers, and a date had been set.

The day of the panel came, and we were nervous. But at my school, we have three lunches, which for us meant three rotations of teachers. We talked about Black hair, generalizations, and the difference between inclusion and diversity. As we spoke, I watched facial expressions change with our words and took note of which teachers had asked what. Each rotation, we got more confident and our stories differed. Each rotation, it got harder to talk about. But our main takeaway point stayed the same:

The impact of your words will always outweigh your intent. It’s important to be aware of yourself and your actions/speech. If you’re ignorant, ask questions. It’s okay if you don’t understand. Sometimes it’s not for you to understand. It’s just for you to accept.

Post-panel, my friends and I were showered with appreciation for speaking up and sharing our stories. The teachers had loved the panel. It seems they had really listened and digested our words. Over the next few days, teachers would take better care with how they were around us. Nobody else noticed it, but we had. And we’re still actively working to further the discussion. It’s important to us.

If you’ve noticed earlier, I mentioned that in our panel we talked about a few key topics, one being our hair.

So, let’s discuss.

Why is Black hair such a touchy topic?

Here’s one sentence I’ve heard more than anything regarding it:

It’s not a representation of who you are. It’s just hair.

And that’s false. Black hair holds history and culture. It’s the stories of our ancestors and the experiences of our grandparents. Our hair, simply put, is like a key.

Growing up, I was pitted against my sister for our hair. My hair is thinner, with looser curls. Hers is thick, hair coiled tight. My stepmother told me I have white girl hair. I made fun of my sister’s hair for years. This self-hate my family had and instilled in me is the largest root of a previously bad relationship with my elder sister.

For years, I didn’t know how to do my hair. It laid almost flat and just barely curly when I let it down. My sister, however, always wore braids and different styles. I used my sister’s hair products to try new styles, but with our different hair types, it just made my hair unhealthier.

I moved away and started straightening my hair. I thought I looked better that way. I figured people would like my hair better that way. But it was damaged and constantly needed care. One day, I wore my hair natural and my friends all said it was beautiful. A teacher told me I looked like a snazzy New York higher-up.

After that, I decided to stop straightening it for a while and just let it breathe. I took my mom’s curl products and went to town, trying different styles for each outfit. My hair started looking and feeling healthier and I started to prefer it that way.

I still can’t braid my hair, but now it curls properly. It grows painfully slow, as it always has, but now I know what works and what doesn’t. I know how to own it.

It took me, officially, till the start of 2020 to fully appreciate my curls. That’s almost my entire life. For some, it’s a quick process. For some, it’s longer than that.

I think besides the compliments that changed my view on my hair, it was also the truth that I couldn’t claim to be 100% authentic when I was still heating my hair to satisfy a beauty standard I would never live up to. It’s a bland beauty standard, but those shouldn’t exist anyway.

My Black pride started a long time ago when I first understood the reality of my skin color. But it didn’t fully manifest until I accepted my hair as it is, and found the beauty in that.

My friends and I have different hair types. Some of us are mixed, but the rest of us are fully Black. One thing that I think was hard for myself to learn was that my hair type didn’t make me any less Black, which I imagine mixed people also go through with regards to skin tone as well. It also doesn’t make us any less of a person.

I still have people asking me if my hair is a weave. Someone asked my friend why she doesn’t straighten her hair. The “can I touch it” is endless.

These questions are the whole point. The students getting suspended for not cutting their dreads and the employees getting denied jobs due to their Afros are the whole point. If hair is just hair, how can we be so easily displaced for ours? If hair is just hair, why are we fighting to keep our lives, our jobs, our education, our hair? Then, is it not just hair? It is who we are.

I felt like it was important to bring up why our hair means so much to us. And well, that’s the sort of thing that’s different for everybody. I mean, taking a flat iron to my hair was for a different reason as compared to some of my friends doing it.

I straightened my hair to feel more accepted. I felt better about myself when everyone complimented my hair. And by that same token, it’s why wearing my hair curly is a beautiful thing to me. Because instead of trying to feel more accepted, it was a way of embracing the way I was created. It was me shaking up that mentality I had.

I went from wearing my hair down in that same middle part each day to slicking back my hair in this cute little puff at the back. I was buying a whole set of brushes and butterfly clips. I have my mom’s curl infusers and each day I work out a new style and plan my next outfit in my head.

I started mixing up outfits and even deciding I could buy from the little kids’ section of Walmart and fix myself up the flyest wardrobe.

It wasn’t just about the hair. It was about finding my true self underneath the need to feel accepted.

I feel now like many of my decisions throughout life have been based on that idea — being accepted. It’s like a track record. But the more I find myself reflecting and sitting on self-realization, the more inclined I am to change that about me.

But, moving on…

The students in my school say a lot. That ranges from students outright denying slavery or posting videos to Snapchat saying they’ll “whip a nigger.” They wear Trump 2020 stickers and come decked out in the American flag.

They are, as I like to call them, “Aggressively American.”

It’s to be expected. To go as large scale as I can: This is America. I may not like the way they do things ‘round here, but it’s how they are. Racism, I won’t tolerate. Bigotry will always be something I fight. But if you want to cut your hair into a mullet and wear the American flag on your back, I don’t mind it. So long as you don’t mind when I wear Black Lives Matter merch and raise my fist to say “Black Power!”

But even with my schoolmates and all their excessively overt love of Amerikkka, I found more issues lying in myself. All of this — the ignorance, the resulting panel, and everything moving forward — has only helped me realize my own shortcomings and how I can be better.

I am angry. I am tired. But for this, I am also grateful. I am trying to make a change, within myself and my community. As much as I hate it, it has helped me to grow into the woman I am now. And I’m proud of that.