Racial Autoethnography (Part 2 of 3)
In addition, my early education at Westtown School, a historically and predominantly white institution, contributed to the way I experienced and thought about my racial identity. All of my teachers were white except for two during my whole elementary school experience and race did not come up too many times beyond Black History Month, or our slavery or Civil Rights Movement unit, but I do remember feeling conflicted about the way I thought about my own race. For example, there were times when I felt allowed to be proud of black people in general, during our jazz unit, or our black poetry unit, etc., but I never felt like I could be proud of myself as a black individual. Possibly because of our school’s mission for equality and essentially, “colorblindness”, we were taught that race was not something we should really think about or care about. As Bonilla-Silva suggests, dominant racial frames, or in this circumstance, the white racial frame, “provide the intellectual road map used by rulers (my white teachers and peers) to navigate the always rocky road of domination and… derail the ruled from their track to freedom and equality” (Bonilla-Silva, 74). I believe this colorblind ideology created less opportunities for me to recognize and be proud of my blackness.
In many ways, I also see my family and elementary school influences as a certain privilege. Interestingly, I believe this privilege was feeling that I was, and could actually be, equal to white people and that there was no difference between us whatsoever. While many are burdened with the harsh realities of racism, I on the other hand, was under the impression that it did not, or would not, affect me. I see this to be one of the most powerful and positive aspects of my life–the fact that I was raised to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be regardless of my race; not all young black children get the opportunity to feel that way. The fact that I was black never was and never has been a downfall for me. It was just part of me. There were, and still are, things that I struggle to face and understand about how my race is perceived, but they never make me wish I was not black, or not myself.
I assume that this mentality affected the way that I then began to interact with and view black and brown students at my public middle school the following year. The city of West Chester, Westtown School and my public middle school are all predominantly-white spaces. In my early years at Westtown (K-5) there were always about 5-7 black kids in my grade of 36, which thinking back on it, was an outstanding amount. At my middle school, less than 5% of my class was black and there were only two other black girls and one black boy who were in any of my accelerated classes. I did not associate with the “other” black students as much because they were not in any of my classes. I also saw the way that my white peers, and frankly, white friends, would talk about and look at the black and brown students from the “ghetto” of West Chester. Unconsciously at the time, but now strikingly obvious, I worked very hard to not be seen the way they were seen by white students and faculty. Staying respectful and friendly I would talk to these students and maybe sit with them at lunch every once-in-a-while, but I did not get too close. (Here is an interesting article I found online about this…)
During my middle school years, I do not remember consciously thinking about race very much. Interestingly, the most pressing issue in my mind during those years was academic achievement. I had this image of myself and what I was supposed to be and accomplish. I had goals for myself and was anal about homework and keeping up stellar grades. I pushed myself too hard in order to fulfill this image that I had created and wanted to maintain. But I question today and did even back then, why I really cared to maintain it so much? I recognize that much of this issue came from ego and pride, but I also wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that I was one of the only black kids in all of my classes and activities. Did race have anything to do with the pressure I felt to succeed? People told me that I would be the first black woman president of the United States and when they said it, I believed it. I had to keep going because I was a black person they liked and trusted and believed in. I did not think race was on my mind in this way, but it was potentially a driving force of my anxiety.
There were other memorable experiences from my life before high school that affected the way I thought and talked about race. In the 5th grade, I had a new friend group of 6 white girls. We spent a lot of time together outside of school and every day at lunch and recess. At recess, we would bring paper outside and play this game in which one person would choose a category such as, “who is the prettiest?” Each girl would then write someone’s name on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and hand it in to the person who chose the category. That person would then read the responses aloud. I would repeatedly not get chosen for the girl who was the prettiest, or who had the prettiest hair, or smile. This experience also affected the way in which I thought about myself in terms of race. It became normal for my friends and I to equate beauty to white standards of skin and hair.
Next, in the 6th grade, I was chosen to be Annie in my middle school’s production of Annie. I was greatly surprised, as was the rest of my white middle school, to be cast in this role as it typically goes to the outspoken redhead. I remember a 7th grade girl who I was friends with at the time who told me she heard some 8th graders questioning why I had gotten the role. A few days before the show, my director–a white woman–pulled me aside and told me, “I did all of this (gave me the role), because of this.” She then pointed to her locket that held a picture of her adopted black son and smiled at me like I was supposed to be complemented by what she had just said. All of these events sent questions through my mind of my legitimacy. Was I actually talented? Did I really deserve to have gotten this role? Thinking now in terms of class conversations about Whiteness as a category of power, I see this invisible order or structure that my white peers, and even my white teacher in this situation were following. At the time I actually felt bad or somewhat ashamed for getting the role, but why? I auditioned and I got the role, no matter the circumstance, that was what happened, but I was too busy feeling all of this guilt and pressure so could not feel proud or accomplished. In every space that I went during my middle school years I would feel this way–in clubs, at my dance studio, and in other outside-of-school organizations. They were all historically white, and therefore, historically did not let people like me into their programs. I did not know this or think much of it at the time but this definitely affected the dynamics.
Interestingly, from the 4th to 8th grade, I had gone from someone who noticed race, yet only unconsciously gave it much thought, to being someone who is an active advocate for improved understanding around race and how it affects our lives. Race had become a day-to-day thought by the time I entered Westtown’s Upper School.
Part 3 Coming Soon!! 🙂
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4th ed., Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
Feagin, Joe R. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. 3rd ed., New York [u.a.], Routledge, 2014.